This article originally appeard in 2009 in The Review Atlas as a part of my weekly Practical Parenting series:
As an adult, what do you do when you are angry, sad, frustrated or stressed to the max? You may have a variety of responses to any of these feelings but chances are you probably will not kick, hit or bite somebody. Neither will it cross your mind to throw yourself down on the floor and wail and scream until someone comes over to make you feel better.
I mean you could, but we’d be moving you to a room with rubber walls for sure.
Naturally we don’t behave this way but there are children everywhere, kicking and screaming and throwing temper tantrum because they have no other outlet to communicate their feelings of stress and frustration.
Even simple, pent up energy, exhaustion or overstimulation can sometimes cause children to behave more aggressively.
The first and most important thing parents and caregivers can do is to understand this is normal behavior. The key is to curbing this type of acting out is to begin to identify the cause of the aggression.
Is it stress? Fatigue? Frustration? On many occasions quick thinking parents can often head off confrontations and eliminate many problems all together.
For example, hunger and sleep deprivation are huge stressors when it comes to children’s behavior. A hungry toddler is not going to behave for you in the store. It’s practically impossible. If we understand this then it makes no sense to be angry at a naughty child. I cringe when I see parents hitting or yelling at children when there is a chance the entire event could have been avoided.
(I’m not saying our entire lives should be rearranged at the whimsy schedule of a little kid. I’m simply suggesting that we consider if some errands can be rearranged to better suit the family – and mom’s sanity.)
An invaluable tool parents can give their children is the use of words. Often times, children are experiencing emotions that are either foreign to them or they are unable to verbalize. A two year old cannot say to your, “Gee Mom, when you took my toy away without warning me it was bedtime made me feel really mad. I wish you wouldn’t do that again!”
No, that’s silly, right? Instead they kick, scream and yell, “No!” In this scenario it would have been very helpful for the child to have an opportunity to transition. I mean, how difficult is it for you when you are in the middle of an activity to be abruptly interrupted? Imagine if your coworker walked up to you and took a paper right out of your hand and said, “It’s time to turn this in.” You’d be furious. It’s the same with our children.
Encourage your child to use their words . Very young children might need your help. You can say, “I see you are sad that it is bedtime, let’s clean up the toys together and then we can read stories in bed.”
Notice this is not a bribe as reading before bed would be an example of something you would normally do anyway.
Of course, there is the chance it will take some time in order for your child to understand that their acting out isn’t getting them any extra time or attention but I am certain that once your kiddo realizes you’re not being mean but willing to work with them they can come to compliance.
With respect and consistency over time it will effectively communicate to your child what behaviors are acceptable and what are not. Also offer children lots of love, hugs and kisses when they are having difficulty with their feelings and emotions.
There is no way to avoid aggression in kids. We all feel aggressive at different times. The difference is we know not to act on it. Let’s begin to teach our kids what to do with these feelings as well.